Court Rules Delaware School Board's Prayer Policy Unconstitutional

The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower-court ruling and held the Indian River School District’s practice of praying at scheduled meetings, which were often attended by students, was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

On Friday, the three-judge panel determined the district court’s decision that the school board is more like a legislative body than a school was incorrect.

At each meeting, the Delaware school board would open with a prayer offered by one of the board members. The Court of Appeals had a concern about the prayers-- which were usually Christian in their orientation-- since students usually attended the meeting to receive awards or as part of their extra-curricular activities.

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The panel stated that the meetings were comparable to graduation ceremonies. Although the meetings were not mandatory, the judges felt that the students were nevertheless coerced into participating in religious exercises. Therefore, the Court of Appeals decided that the primary effect of the school board’s prayer policy was to advance a specific religion and violated the U.S. Constitution.

The three-judge panel applied the test from Lee v. Weisman, which determines whether prayers opening a school board meeting violate the Establishment Clause; rather than utilizing the rule that permits prayer in legislative bodies (Marsh v. Chambers).

In Lee, a middle school principal invited a rabbi to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony. Weisman’s daughter was among the graduates, so he sought a temporary restraining order, which was denied by the district court.

The ceremony proceeded as planned and after the prayers were incited, Weisman filed for a permanent injunction barring the school from inviting clergy to deliver invocations at the school’s ceremonies.

The case was denied by the court of appeals and eventually heard by the country’s highest court.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that inclusion of clergy offering prayers at public school ceremonies did in fact violate the Establishment Clause. The justices reasoned that the action created a “state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a pubic school,” which indirectly coerced students to act in ways that establish a state religion.

In a 72-page decision, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “In arriving at this outcome, we recognize, as the Supreme Court has, that ‘religion has been closely identified with our history and government.’”

“But we take to heart the observation ... that ‘(i)t is neither sacrilegious nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves.’”

“We are, naturally, disappointed in the outcome. We were certainly hoping (to win),” said Indian River Superintendent Susan Bunting

The school board can appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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